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Gift of Incense

Gift of Incense

A Story Of Love and Revolution in Ethiopia

A Story by Abubaker Ashakih as told to and written by Judith Ashakih

303,p.p The Red Sea Press,Inc.2005

Gift of Incense is an epic and moving autobigraphical reflections of two people.Written in a very readable style, the book offers a nostalgic look back at their lives together and ‘the unique and wonderful world ‘ they have experienced. But it also documents the social and political history of Ethiopia in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Judith Linder, who wrote the book, is an American who emigrated to Ethiopia in the early 1960’s and married an Eritrean, Abubaker Ashakih, who was a composer, musician and singer for the Imperial Music Department in Ethiopia and owner of two Venus nightclubs in Addis Ababa from 1968-1978. 

The story is captivatingly told from personal recollections, diaries and letters, and magazine articles and is backlighted by ageles tradition and timeless geography.It is an honest account of enduring love, despite incrediable odds, between two people from different parts of the world.

The first part of the book narrates on Abubaker’s early life in Keren, Eritrea, his happy and simple childhood, with memories like

‘As a child ,I spent many, many evenings with the other children, lying on my back counting stars and collecting them for ourselves as we called out to each other, “That one is mine, and that one over there.’

 Until, it was interrupted bythe brutal war of the colonialists, and Abubaker continues to weave the intricate tale of the impact of the Brtish and Italian war on the villlage, his early passion for music, his escape to Asmara, then to Addis Ababa, and then to Saudi Arabia where the news of the oil discovery there lured him and other young men of Eritrea in search of wealth.Through all this, we see his transformation from a simple little town boy to an independent urban dweller.

By the late 1950’s, Abubaker came to Addis and joined the Imperial Bodyguard Music Department, where he composed many classic hits like ‘Ye FikerShemani’ (Weaver of Love) for Bizunesh Bekele, ‘Ye Hewete Hiwot Anche Be-mehonesh'(You are my Life) for Tilahun Gessesse. Eventually, Abubaker says, they turned into 350 songs.

When he tells of his life, Abubaker paid meticulous attention to the detail and accuracy of the story and has suceded in puting the record straight.

Judith on her part tells of the day she was born inNorwalk, Ohio in June 30,1941 and the path that led her tweny-five years later to live in Ethiopia, a country known in rural Ohio largely because its Red Sea Coast partage with the land of the Bible.

She spoke how she came to fall in love with the country after ‘meeting several of the elegant, regal young women and men who were exchange students living in D.C. and eagerly gleaned any insights offered in conversation with them.’

Judith’s  subsequent tales deals of her arrival in Addis and her shock to find the capital city of Addis Ababa so countified.In a letter writeen to her folks back in America, she coined,

  ‘Our pensinoe is in the middle of “Piazza”, the old  commercial center of Addis Ababa.I expected more than the few small retail shops with very limited and pricey marchandise but finally realized “that’s all”.

 From my window I can hear the radio of the bunna beit, a coffehouse next door, and each morning the chicken wake me at sunrise with thier crowning.Hurdes of alley cats calumph over the tin roofs.Burros wander the walways nipping off the grass as they go.Life is generally very causual here in the heart of the capital.’

What follows next is descriptions of her job at the Busness College of the Haile Selassie University, the people she had met, and her  transfer to the Ministry of P.T& T..,where she met Abubaker.

And that was how the couple’s journey from feudalism through socialism and into the world of exile which happened to be the fate of thousands of Ethiopians during the Mengistu Haile Mariam “Red Terror”.

The book is divided into five parts:Abuabker (1940 to 1966), Judith (1941-1966), Sendalai and Hadeeya, (1967-1968), The Venus Club(1968-1973), Revolution(1974 -1978).

Judith tells us about all the ingenuity and talent they both  expended to create the Venus nifghtclub.Her skill in describing the people she has known is done simply and deftly.Describing Siminesh, a young girl in late May 1966 and formed a friendship to last to this day,

‘She was tall, thin and striking.a large dark scar ran down from the corner of her mouth to disappear under the edge of her chin, resulting from a mule kick when she was young, she one told me.Her eagerness and entusiasm  for life were openly manifested.Her fresh, sunny, open countenance made her vastly different from many other women I had so far met in Addis Ababa, who tended to be aloof, secretive, reserved, wary and not easily approachable, thier regal beauty forming a veil to thier characters.Were they simply shy while Simienesh was out going?

Her voice had a lilting quality with the hint of a British accent to her English, a pleasing tone and unhurried, philosophical manner of delivery.She would have been a marvelous radio announcer, I thoght, but even bette, as a television peronality.Only TV could do justice to her beautiful, unaffected smile.’

But this is no mere narrative.It is instead both a vital document of Ethiopia in the 1960’s and 70’s.

In the epilogue, Judith wrote that,

  ‘Abubaker and I arrived in Washington, D.C. on the day of our tenth anniversary!What an anniversary to remember!”

And their journet to stability took them from D.C to Ohio and on to California where they intended to pursue a business.However, they in the end returned to Ohio from February 1979 until January 2004, they ran a dance club known as the German Village, later the Village Rendevous.

Their children have grown into beautiful adults pursing their own dreams.

Though Abubaker was diagnosed with cancer and died on 2 November 2000, Judith set out to publish the book ,with some of her husbads dictation he has left and ‘assemble bits and pieces’ she had begun years earlier.

And the result is the fine observations of two natural observers, astute and sensible. All those interested in Ethiopian history should read this.

 Here is Paul McCartney’s “Dawn Star” song taken from the book.

You are

The brightest star

In a blue dawn


Above us

Between us

We gaze admiringly

Like Jupiter 

Categories: Books
  1. M.B
    December 28, 2006 at 1:44 pm

    Arefe – I certainly could talk about Nega MeZlekia; I’ll have a think about a good angle to consider his work from. all your reviews remind you just how many books are out there still waiting to be read! But I’m impressed you’ve read/possess so many!

  2. February 15, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    This sounds like a good book. I too, lived in Addis Ababa in the early 1960’s and went to Nazareth School for Girls between ’62-’64. There were lots of different nationalities in the class: American, Armenian, Indian, and Egyptian. My classmates were Mary and Sihin Asfaw Wossen, grand daughters of the Emperor and Hiruth Girma, daughter of President Girma. I hadn’t appreciated what a good school it was.

    I’ve written about some of my classmates in my first non-fiction book “An Ethiopian Odyssey”, published late last year. The return to Addis in 2004 was inspired by a dream I had in April 2000, when I dreamt I was back in the foothills with an Ethiopian couple and we were talking about poverty and drought. Mid-conversation, I bent down to feel the dry topsoil, and knew behond all doubt, that I was there to help provide permanent clean water for the very poor.

    Do visit my website. It’s been an amazing journey, full of miracles and connections across the world. One of deep faith and joy, and meant to be. It ends at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York, the small church of great peace beside Ground Zero. An Ethiopian version of “The Celestine Prophecy” or “The Alchemist”, according to some. One day, I hope it will be turned into a film. I hope to let the world know the resilience of Ethiopians and the connections between us all.

  3. Dale Coffman
    May 27, 2007 at 2:21 am

    I do not read many books. I did read this one. Abubaker and Judy have been friends of mine since 1980. He did not speak much of his life before moving to the US. I never realized what he and Judy experienced before I read the book. I wish I could talk to him again. He passed away a few years ago and I will miss our talks. He was a very good business man.

  4. amanuel
    August 15, 2007 at 2:55 am

    Wow this shows how we few eritreans have suffered back in the days

  5. Avril
    May 3, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    a great book, you cannot put it down. i do feel like i knew them both. thank you abubakar for you music and thank you judith for helping to write this story, but most of all for your courage.

  1. November 10, 2006 at 8:04 pm

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